Book Review: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
“Out here, all around them to the last fringes of occupancy, were Toobfreex at play in the video universe, the tropic isle, the Long Branch Saloon, the Starship Enterprise, Hawaiian crime fantasies, cute kids in make-believe living rooms with invisible audiences to laugh at everything they did, baseball highlights, Vietnam footage, helicopter gunships and firefights, and midnight jokes, and talking celebrities, and a slave girl in a bottle, and Arnold the pig, and here was Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness… how a certain hand might reach terribly out of darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good.” – Narrator
I have always liked the noir genre in films as I devoured movies like LA Confidential, Chinatown, The Big Sleep, and The Maltese Falcon. I have always admired the moral conundrums of their protagonists as they flit back and forth from good and evil. This moral ambiguity is what makes noir films interesting as their protagonists are drunkards, violent, or any other character flaw that makes traditional protagonists tame. Include the femme fatales; the dark atmosphere; cunning villains; interweaving story lines; unique cinematography and you have a formula that guarantees entertainment.
I cannot recall if I have read any book of the noir persuasion and, if my memory serves me right, Inherent Vice is the closest thing to noir that I have read. I say closest because the novel is not entirely noir, in my opinion since it’s lighter and funnier than what I am accustomed to. Inherent Vice is closer to one of the Coen Brother’s masterpieces, The Big Lebowski since they share the tendency to become weird and funny. Both works have unconventional protagonists engaged in weird investigations; an eclectic array of supporting characters; and both are set in a Los Angeles covered in a drug-induced haze
In the novel, we find our private detective, Larry “Doc” Sportello, looking into the request made by his former girlfriend, Shasta Fay, to investigate the threats against her current boyfriend, Mickey Wolfman, who is a real-estate developer worth billions. As soon as Doc begins his investigation, as he begins to search for clues regarding the threat, Mickey and Shasta disappears. Then he is burdened with other cases such as the death of one of Mickey’s bodyguard, Glen Charlock, who has ties to the Aryan brotherhood and the African-American militant movement; and the Jesus impersonation of Coy Harlingen who died of an overdose then mysteriously comes back to life with seemingly different identities.
In the midst of these mysteries, Doc must also deal with a lot of threats and sub-mysteries such as Bigfoot Bjornsen, the nemesis-friend of Doc who is steers him towards dangerous directions; Adrian Prussia, an assassin that specializes in political dissidents; and the mysterious Golden Fang, a shadowy organization that may be a drug cartel, a seedy holding company, or a conglomerate of dentists. All of these converge to create a plot that is engaging, intricate, and confusing.
However, one cannot afford to shrug off Inherent Vice as a part-noir, part-comedic novel since it is more than that. The criminal mystery aspect of the novel is just the background of Pynchon’s ode to the city of angels in the time when it is more counterculture than Hollywood. It is, after all, set in the end of the Swinging, Psychedelic Sixties and to be replaced by relatively tamer 1970s. It is about how a groovy PI will set against a corrupt system in order to do good, to execute his own moral code. About how an unlikely hero can emerge victorious (or, at least, emerge with a semblance of victory) against whatever evil there is in the world. And about staying groovy and cool amid all these.
Of course, being born in the Philippines during the 1990s, I cannot exactly relate with what Pynchon’s ode to 1960s LA is really about. Pynchon and I are separated by miles, years, and culture so I cannot say that I understand what his nods and winks to a bygone era really means. And I must tell you that the nods and winks are numerous ranging from movies, music, TV series, and even restaurants. But what I felt was how this LA came alive in my imagination while reading Inherent Vice and that descriptive power of Pynchon is what really makes this book outstanding.
This is the first Pynchon novel that I read in preparation for the Brobdingnagian monstrosity that is Against the Day that is staring at me from my book pile. And, if Pynchon’s writing is consistent with Inherent Vice, then I am really excited to read his other works.